Race and Class: Taking Action at the
By Rhonda Soto, coordinator of the Race/Class
Intersections program at Class Action
At an Exploring Class workshop at Dartmouth
College, students participate in an activity that
visually represents disparities of wealth distribution
in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Class
Discussing race without including class analysis is
like watching a bird fly without looking at the sky:
it’s possible, but it misses the larger context.
Intersections of race and class are complicated and
personal, and they need to be acknowledged. Yet in the
United States, so little talk about class occurs that
great confusion surrounds these intersections. As the
coordinator of the Race/Class Intersections program
at the nonprofit Class Action (www.classism.org), I
have heard from many people who say our conversation
is the first time they have publicly discussed the intersection
of race and class. They search for the right words to
express the complicated relationship between these categories,
and find that it defies existing frameworks.
Much of Class Action’s work takes place at institutions
of higher education. We work with professional and administrative
staff, students, and community members to identify and
dismantle class barriers and biases, and to build opportunities
for cross-class alliances. Class remains largely invisible
on college campuses, as most institutions do not include
class in their campus dialogues, diversity training,
or curricular offerings. The lack of discussion about
class has led to confusion about the race/class intersection,
with race sometimes becoming a stand-in for class. This
is problematic not only for the many first-generation
college students who are people of color, but also for
students whose race- and class-based identities do not
intersect in stereotypical ways.
|Steps to Support Low-Income Students across Identities
take steps to create more supportive cultures
for lower-income students from diverse cultural
backgrounds. These include:
Review and Revise the Curricula
Challenge curricula and academic cultures that
privilege certain people and marginalize others.
As women’s studies and ethnic studies have
done, encourage diverse voices, leadership styles,
and methods of teaching, learning, and evaluating
that build on the strengths of poor and working-class
students from diverse cultural backgrounds. Give
students opportunities to learn about their own
identities, histories, and cultures. Recognize
working-class studies, like women’s studies
and ethnic studies, as a legitimate and necessary
field of intellectual inquiry.
Provide Necessary Support Services
Welcome students to campus early. Invite families
to learn about the school and the college experience.
Give access to academic support for students who
have had less rigorous preparation. Provide programs
specifically for first-generation college students,
including facilitated support groups, orientation
programs that help students understand the hidden
rules of the academy, and faculty/staff mentors.
Provide role models with similar backgrounds,
including first-generation faculty and staff,
who can help alleviate the culture shock and isolation
many first-generation students experience.
Reduce the Barriers
Like other forms of oppression, classism operates
on multiple levels, from individual attitudes
to institutional practices and cultural norms.
Give faculty, staff, and students opportunities
to learn about classism through training and workshops.
As individuals’ consciousness about classism
and racism increase, they become able to change
their behaviors. As a result, campus communities
become more welcoming places. A systemic review
of campus policies and practices may also help
expose unintended classism.
When race becomes a stand-in for class, it creates
conflict for students of color who are presumed to be
from low-income families and for white students who
are presumed not to be. We hear the terms “working-class
whites” and “middle-class blacks,”
but not the terms “middle-class whites”
or “working-class blacks.” But it is unnecessary
to name what is normative. Thus our discussions about
“the working class” and “people of
color” make working-class white students and middle-class
students of color invisible, which can be devastating
to these students. At the same time, our language suggests
indifference to working-class people of color, who are
accepted as the norm. In order to serve the full range
of students on our campuses, we must deal with issues
of racism and issues of classism, and we must understand
how they intersect.
Research confirms ever-widening disparities in educational
achievement and enrollment among Latinas/os, African
Americans, and low-income students, as compared to their
white middle- and upper-class peers (Kelly 2005). Because
school resources are tied to local revenues, students
from low-income communities, who are disproportionately
people of color, are more likely to have inexperienced
teachers, limited resources, and little access to role
models or mentors (Annie E. Casey Foundation 2008).
They enter college without adequate preparation for
success, and their transition to higher education is
often difficult. Moreover, families with limited income
may not be able to spare their hardworking college-age
children, who could contribute financially rather than
plunge the family into debt with education loans.
The challenges related to resources are often compounded
by the psychological pressures low-income students,
particularly low-income students of color, face. College
definitely has a “class culture,” and it
isn’t the culture of working-class or lower-income
students. Research tells us that college is a middle-class
experience and that many low-income students feel pressured
to assimilate (DiMaria 2006). Race and ethnicity may
deepen these students’ feelings of isolation,
especially if they come from families whose culture
and language differs from that of majority students.
Perception and judgments of faculty and peers have an
impact as well. Because affirmative action is a hot-button
issue, students of color may find themselves prejudged
by their peers and professors, even as the numbers of
(typically white) legacy admissions exceed the number
of affirmative action admissions.
The presence or absence of cultural, social, and academic
capital can also have a profound impact on students.
Pierre Bourdieu describes cultural capital, or what
you know, as the forms of knowledge, skill, education,
and other advantages a person has that confer higher
status (1986). Knowing the rules of etiquette (such
as which fork to use) or understanding references to
theater are examples of cultural capital. Social capital,
or who you know, refers to resources based on group
membership, relationships, or networks of influence
and support (Bourdieu 1986). To these Will Barratt adds
the concept of academic capital, which students begin
to attain in the home (2007). Second-generation students
come to college with accumulated academic capital, which
they apply to gain more through excellent grades, honors
and awards, and participation in academic clubs. Students
of color and lower-income students may have significant
cultural or social capital within their own communities,
but the dominant academic culture might not recognize
or appreciate these forms of capital.
If educational institutions are to embrace all of their
students and staff, they must address the impact of
race and class on the experiences and successes of students.
Acknowledging the existence of class on campus is an
important first step. Some elite colleges, recognizing
that few students from lower-income families are attending
their schools, have recently increased financial aid
to recruit high-achieving students from low-income families.
But getting poor and working-class students through
the door is only the beginning. Institutions need to
take additional steps (including revising the curricula,
providing support services, and reducing cultural barriers,
as detailed in the sidebar) to provide adequate support
so students can succeed and thrive.
For more theory and research on these topics, see “Class
in Education,” a recently published special issue
of the journal Equity and Education guest edited
by Felice Yeskel, Class Action’s executive director.
Class Action also provides a range of resources to assist
campuses on our Web site: www.classism.org.
Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2008. Race Matters
Barratt, W. 2007. Talking about social class on campus.
NASPA NetResults. wbarratt.indstate.edu/documents/talking_about_social_class.htm
(accessed November 5, 2007).
Bourdieu, P. 1986. The forms of capital. In J. Richardson
(Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology
of Education, 241-58. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
DiMaria, F. 2006. Working-class students: Lost in a
college’s middle-class culture. Education
Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review
72 (1): 60-65.
Kelly, P. 2005. As America becomes more diverse:
The impact of state higher education inequality.
National Center for Higher Education Management Systems,
Boulder, CO: Lumina Foundation for Education.
Yeskel, F., Ed. 2008. Coming to class: Looking at education
through the lens of class: Introduction to the Class
and Education Special Issue. Equity and Excellence
in Education: The University of Massachusetts Amherst
School of Education Journal 41 (1): 1-11.